Saudi interior ministry imposes temporary ban on Umrah pilgrims from Kingdom over coronavirus fears

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The ban on Umrah aims at limiting the spread of the coronavirus and prevent its access to the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah, which are witnessing permanent and intense crowds. (AP)
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Pilgrims traveling from anywhere in the Kingdom will not be allowed into the two holy mosques. (File/AFP)
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Updated 05 March 2020

Saudi interior ministry imposes temporary ban on Umrah pilgrims from Kingdom over coronavirus fears

  • Overseas ban extended to Saudis and expats

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia on Wednesday suspended all Umrah pilgrimages as it reported its second case of the new coronavirus.

The Kingdom imposed a ban last week on overseas pilgrims visiting the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. 

The ban now applies to Saudi nationals and expatriates, the Interior Mini stry said.

The aim is to “limit the spread of the coronavirus and prevent its access to the Two Holy Mosques, which are witnessing permanent and intense crowds, which makes the issue of securing these crowds of utmost importance,” a spokesman said.

Saudis and expats may still visit Makkah and Madinah to pray provided they do not go for Umrah, said Deputy Hajj Minister Abdulfattah Mashat. “Makkah is still open to visitors from across the Kingdom, the decision suspends only Umrah activities,” he told Al Arabiya TV.

Saudi Arabia reported its second coronavirus case on Wednesday, a companion of the first, who crossed the causeway from Bahrain without disclosing that he had visited Iran, the center of the outbreak in the region. Authorities quarantined 70 people who had been in contact with the patient and 51 of them tested negative for the virus, the Ministry of Health said.

There are now more than 3,150 cases across the Middle East, almost all either in or linked to Iran, which has 2,922 confirmed cases and 92 deaths. Authorities canceled Friday prayers in all provincial capitals and banned overseas trips for officials.

Nevertheless, experts continue to worry that Iran is not being transparent about how badly it has been hit. 

“The spread of the virus to almost all of Iran’s provinces leaves little doubt that the authorities are struggling to contain the outbreak,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

“After a slow and politicized response to the outbreak, the government now faces a race against time to prevent a public health emergency from turning into an economic crisis.”

Worldwide, more than 94,000 people have contracted the virus, with more than 3,200 deaths. “People are afraid and uncertain. Fear is a natural human response to any threat,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization. “But as we get more data, we are understanding this virus and the disease it causes.”

Insurers in Saudi Arabia reassured clients that they were covered if they contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The illness is a respiratory condition and all health policies cover tests and treatment, including medical examination, diagnosis and medicines, said Yasser Al-Marek, spokesman for the Council of Cooperative Health Insurance.

Nearly a third of employers in the Kingdom have plans for staff to work from home if the virus threat grows, a new survey suggests. However, most “work from home” plans are restricted to HR and admin staff, according to the survey by the employment portal GulfTalent.


Kids going stir-crazy in isolation? Here’s how to keep them occupied

Updated 10 April 2020

Kids going stir-crazy in isolation? Here’s how to keep them occupied

  • Saudi mothers relate challenges in keeping their children from getting bored amid nationwide lockdown

RIYADH: School’s out for the foreseeable future, but every child’s dream is every mother’s worst nightmare. With nowhere else to go during the day, and most entertainment venues in the city cordoned off, mothers are discussing how the crisis has affected them, and more importantly, what they’re doing to control it.

Dr. Marwa Elagra, an assistant professor at REU, told Arab News about how she and her three children (4th grade, 1st grade, and nursery) were coping with the new social distancing policy and the challenges it posed for their education.

“In the beginning, during the first few days, their schools weren’t yet prepared for the sudden shutdown. It took them almost a week to prepare themselves,” she said.

Despite a somewhat bumpy beginning, things are starting to pick up. 

“They have virtual classes now, and interactive livestreaming with a certain schedule. They can follow up with their teachers, just like in a real classroom. They also send videos that students can watch at any time,” she said.

However, she struggles with getting the children out of “vacation mode,” and convincing them that they still need to study.

“That’s the main challenge in all of this. It’s quite difficult to control the kids around the house, especially since you can’t take them out. They’re jumping around all over the place. They’re doing their homework, but their brains just aren’t in the zone for it,” she said.

They (children) have virtual classes now, and interactive livestreaming with a certain schedule. They can follow up with their teachers, just like in a real classroom. They also send videos that students can watch at any time.

Dr. Marwa Elagra, assistant professor

She hopes that things return to normal soon, or at the very least that a clear plan for the future will emerge after the proposed isolation period is up.

“I hope it doesn’t last for long, especially for primary classes. It is difficult to continue online; they need to interact with their teachers. It is a great pressure on us as moms, we can’t fulfill the role of teachers who are more experienced with children. I am in the academic field myself but I don’t have experience with kids,” she said.

She also has concerns about what these decisions could mean for her children’s academic future and hopes everything will be resolved soon.

“Are they going to give the kids exams or they will end school without them and just count the first term results? Are they going to stop and continue earlier at the beginning of the next academic year? This unclear vision of what will happen is creating the panic between most moms,” she said.

She also has advice for mothers going through the same thing. 

“Have more patience, support and encourage your kids to do more reading, and not only academic reading. Look at the positive side and make use of this long vacation in increasing the knowledge and skills of your kids,” she said.

Dr. May Al-Khudhairy, dean of the College of Applied Medical Sciences at Riyadh Elm University, is making the most of the time she is spending at home with her four children.

“I love having them home because during the week they get home so late that I don’t spend enough quality time with them. I’m even reconsidering all their after-school activities. I’ve forgotten how this time is precious and we need to savor it as long as possible,” she said.

With colleges across the country closed until further notice, Al-Khudhairy is also working from home, a situation that makes it easier to supervise her children and make sure their schoolwork gets done. 

“We sit outdoors and work parallel. The older kids will do their school assignments, and the youngest does her simple Pre-K activities that I find online, from sites like Storynory and Pinterest,” she said.

She recommends that mothers try to keep children occupied with tasks that can be both informative and entertaining. 

“We bake brownies and cupcakes and do experiments, like creating slime at home. Anything to keep busy. They paint, and every day they change it around. And of course, we wash our hands a zillion times a day,” she said.